Imagine: A reality TV show for literacy?

September 5, 2011

I don’t watch a lot of TV. Or at least, I didn’t a few years ago. My other half, however, is a television disciple. I have two degrees in literature and I liken his knowledge of television and movies to my knowledge of literature. He knows just about every major television show and movie ever produced, when it was produced, who directed it, who the actors are, and what other shows the actors have appeared in. He also picks up on cameo appearances of the director or the writer. He instantly understands intertextual references between shows (except that he calls them “Easter eggs”) and can point out in a second when a show makes reference to a show or movie before it. He’s really brilliant at this stuff.

I, being a somewhat stereotypical academic I suppose, tend not to watch much TV. But because it’s important to my other half, we sit down and watch TV. He works hard to find shows I like. We have found common ground in some competitive reality TV shows. Top Chef Canada was one of our recent favorites.

Competitors who excel in their field are gathered and given challenges. They compete against the clock and against one another in order to prove their skills. They are judged by experts in the field. Their work is critiqued, praised, applauded and trashed — all in the matter of a few minutes. Every week, a chef is sent home. No competitor escapes criticism and no one is ever perfect. Even the last chef standing has experienced harsh criticism from the judges and has been trashed by their fellow competitors. Despite it all, they continue to focus on producing their best work, every single time.

Imagine if there was a reality TV show for literacy programs. An episode might go something like this:

“Competitors: Your challenge this week is to develop a 3-hour workshop to teach adults how to write a resume. You will have 12 adults in your class, with reading levels between IALSS levels 2 and 3. Your budget is $50. You have 1 hour to prepare your workshop. The winner will receive a $5000 prize to make their workshop a reality. Your time starts… now!”

There would be no whining about a lack of funding. There would be no grumbling about being overworked. There would be no complaining about there not being enough time. There would be energy, hard work, inspiration, creativity, a deep sense of purpose and a heightened awareness of urgency to produce something amazing with severe financial and time restraints.

Imagine if we worked as if we were on a TV reality show… pushing ourselves to produce consistently outstanding results under ridiculously difficult circumstances, working through the fatigue, ignoring the trash talking by others and the lack of resources, time and budget.

There’s never enough time, never enough money and never enough resources. That is, after all, our reality, isn’t it? Passion, creativity and purpose drive what we do. It’s when we expect reality to be something other than what it really is that we lose our sense of urgency and purpose, let frustration take over… and emotionally, mentally or literally, we get voted out.

Accepting the limitations of any given situation can either mean giving in or using those same limitations as a challenge to fuel your own inner drive.

Achieve the impossible because of the circumstances, not despite them.

Be the star of your own reality show.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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